Urban schools don’t inspire much confidence these days. Politicians and policy leaders routinely bemoan their quality. And media outlets regularly run stories of “failing urban schools.”

Middle- and upper-income parents have expressed misgivings, too. But they’ve done it much less volubly. With relatively little fuss, they’ve simply picked up and moved—departing from city school systems at ever-greater rates. Among expressions of no-confidence, this has arguably been the most significant, because it has reshaped district demography. Each year, it seems, urban schools serve larger concentrations of poor students, racial minorities, and English-language learners. As higher-income families depart, resources go with them, and schools are faced with the daunting prospect of doing more with less.

If such departures are driven by good information about school quality, one can hardly blame parents with resources for acting in the best interests of their children.

Yet what if the information people are acting on is inaccurate or misleading?

Thanks largely to No Child Left Behind, the public has access to performance data for all public elementary and high schools. The data collected and reported, however, largely consist of student standardized test scores. As George W. Bush, who as president signed the act into law, put it, “We measure. We post the scores. We look at results.” Today, over 15 years after NCLB first went into effect, test scores are commonly used—by policy leaders, parents, and the general public—as a measure of school quality, often in the total absence of other information. A recent New York Times feature, for instance, produced a set of charts for prospective suburban homebuyers using only two inputs: “home price data from Redfin … and school quality data based on test scores.”

As a growing body of research suggests, however, test scores don’t truly measure school quality. And, if that is the case, chances are the greatest threat to urban schools isn’t a flaw in the design or execution of urban education. Instead, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy—one in which privileged families presume city schools to be failing and, in taking flight from them, bring about a real decline.

To be sure, urban students don’t post achievement scores equal to their suburban peers. But discrepancies in test scores indicate more about families and neighborhoods than they do about the work being done in schools. One notable study, for instance, found that the influence of family and neighborhood factors accounts for roughly 60 percent of the variance in student test scores; teachers, by contrast, account for only about 10 percent.

Consider the suburbs. Roughly two-thirds of suburban kids are white, and the vast majority do not live in poverty. They are also more likely than their urban counterparts to have parents with college degrees. Given this confluence of variables, suburban students tend to enter school with the early literacy and numeracy skills necessary to learn the prescribed curriculum. Equally important, it means that suburban students are likely to have absorbed school-ready behaviors and attitudes from role models at home and in the community. Children in these environments, in short, don’t need to be explicitly taught the value of school. They hear positive school messages all the time and quickly develop the sense that doing well in school matters. When it comes time to take tests, such students tend to score quite well, and their schools tend to get the credit.

City schools, by contrast, serve a very different mix of young people. Roughly two-thirds of urban students are nonwhite, and in the 20 largest school districts, that figure is 80 percent on average. As research indicates, these students are more likely to absorb negative stereotypes about their own abilities—something that is particularly true when they are in segregated schools. Urban schools also serve an increasing majority of young people from persistently disadvantaged households. Such students are likely to be surrounded by adults with low levels of educational attainment and limited professional prospects—a social context that can have a powerful impact on how students approach school and envision their futures. Additionally, research reveals that compared to their more-affluent peers, poor children are read to less frequently and exposed to less complex language at home, inhibiting the early development of their cognitive skills. Not surprisingly, their scores tend to be lower.

Believing that they are fleeing bad schools, or securing spots in good ones, middle-class parents have inadvertently exacerbated segregation. And that has had a very real impact on urban schools. Demographically integrated schools have been shown to foster a culture of success that can change a child’s sense of academic self-efficacy and plans for the future. This, in part, is due to the influence of a more varied group of peers in such schools. But it is also a result of the fact that integrated schools end up being organized and operated differently than segregated ones—focused less on compliance and discipline, and more on development and achievement. Additionally, in diverse schools with smaller concentrations of high-poverty students, educators can devote extra attention to their neediest pupils—a practice that appears to facilitate the narrowing or closing of learning gaps. Finally, integrated schools can help young people develop the comfort and competence to live and work in a wide variety of settings—opening up their worlds in new ways.

Integrated, highly diverse schools seem an obvious solution with regard to serving the least advantaged. But what about middle-class white students with college-graduate parents? Wouldn’t they be harmed if they were in these schools? Evidence indicates otherwise. Given their out-of-school advantages, these students are likely to remain focused in class, absorb lessons, and move ahead, irrespective of peers. Additionally, middle-class white students develop a whole host of skills and dispositions in diverse schools—cognitive skills like critical thinking, as well as social skills like working with others.

Despite all this, urban schools are tipping severely in the wrong direction: toward higher levels of segregation. In states like New York, Illinois, and California—home to the nation’s three largest school districts—a majority of black or Latino students attend schools that are 90 percent to 100 percent non-white. Students are increasingly segregated by social class as well: The average low-income student in the U.S. today attends a school where two-thirds of the student body is low-income—a 28 percent increase from just a quarter century ago. Such schools are asked to do too much, often with too little, and the entire public-education system is often maligned by politicians and the public when they come up short.

Many urban schools remain socioeconomically diverse. Yet parents with means are increasingly wary of urban education. Mistaking test results for a true barometer of school quality, they are increasingly opting for districts with better scores.

What if the measures were better?

What if, instead of relying on test scores, which seem destined to present urban schools in negative light, parents had rich and accurate information about the quality of America’s schools? What if parents could know how safe a school is and how much students feel like they belong there? What if they could know more about the relationships teachers form with their students and the kind of instruction they deliver in class? What if they could know how challenged students feel in class, how rigorous the curriculum is, and how much time is devoted to literature and the arts? What if they could know how much students are growing academically, socially, and emotionally?

Although it is likely that some schools with low test scores would fare poorly on such measures, research suggests that the number of truly bad schools is much smaller than imagined. Even much-lambasted city schools are nurturing engaged thinkers who value learning. Many are expanding the way young people see the world. Many are cultivating engaged citizens and fostering creativity. If parents knew this, and if they knew how to interpret what test scores actually tell them, might they be more willing to send their children to urban schools? Might that change the common assumption that there is a limited supply of “good” schools and that they are mostly located in affluent suburbs?

School segregation is one of the great challenges of American education. As decades of failure have made clear, the problem will not be solved easily.

That said, it seems that parents and policymakers might do a great deal to reverse the intensifying segregation of American public education simply by educating themselves about what test scores do and don’t say about school quality. Acting on perception that schools are far more unequal than they really are, many well-intended parents play a crucial role in turning perception into reality. Questioning what they have long accepted, however, they might begin to create something different.


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